On October 7, 2019, US President Donald Trump announced a pullout of US troops from northeast Syria, an area controlled by the Kurdish-led armed group, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which had been a key member of the international coalition against ISIS. The group is detaining thousands of Syrian and foreign men and boys in severely overcrowded schools and other buildings in northeast Syria.
“Thousands of people, including children, are stuck in what amounts to shockingly overcrowded prisons on suspicion of being ISIS, but no one is accepting responsibility for them,” said Letta Tayler, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Any authority that effectively controls these informal prisons is legally bound to urgently improve conditions and ensure that each and every detainee is held lawfully.”
The SDF says it is holding 12,000 prisoners, including 4,000 foreigners, in 7 detention centers in northeast Syria. Human Rights Watch spoke to two witnesses, including a former prisoner, who described harrowing conditions and severe overcrowding in the detention centers. The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration controlling northern Syria says it lacks the resources to detain the prisoners properly and that their own countries should bring them home for investigation and potential prosecution. Most countries have failed to do so.
Human Rights Watch interviewed a journalist who said he had visited one of the detention facilities and reviewed his video footage published in The Times of London on September 30. The footage showed cells with dozens of men in orange jumpsuits packed together tightly, their bodies touching, and an equally crowded medical block in a detention center holding boys. The journalist said the detainees included British, French, Belgian, and US citizens, and that they were held in “terrible, terrible conditions.” CBS news published similar images on September 17. Human Rights Watch was not able to verify the images independently.
According to The Times, the people pictured were captured during the battle of Baghouz, which ended in February, and held on suspicion of being ISIS members.
Another person who visited one of the detention centers showed Human Rights Watch two recent photos that also showed severe overcrowding as well as male prisoners who appeared to be children sharing cells with men.
The journalist, Anthony Loyd, said he saw more than 450 detainees in the hospital block of one detention center, including children as young as 12. Many patients were not receiving adequate care and some had died of their injuries in the detention center, he said.
“Several prisoners had multiple amputations and I saw one with his intestines hanging out beneath a bloody dressing. The situation was pretty bleak,” Loyd said. “There were children there.”
The SDF is detaining many boys, some as young as 12, in informal detention centers, but others, particularly younger boys, are held with their parents in camps for suspected ISIS family members or in centers for children apprehended without their parents. One 16-year-old, who spoke with Human Rights Watch in June at a center for unaccompanied boys, said that the SDF and US forces appeared to decide at random which boys to imprison and which to send to the camps or centers.
“One American twice put me in a line to go to jail. But another American cursed him and said, ‘Why are you putting him back? The boy is small,’” the boy said.
The evidence and images reviewed by Human Rights Watch strongly suggest that conditions are unfit to hold detainees and fail to meet basic international standards.
Countries that have refused to allow the return of their nationals held in informal detention centers, or in squalid northeast Syrian camps holding more than 100,000 women and children related to ISIS suspects, nearly half of them foreigners, cite national security concerns and insufficient evidence for prosecution as justification for leaving them there.
Local authorities claim they do not have the necessary infrastructure to prosecute foreign ISIS suspects in line with international due process standards. They have nevertheless set up courts that have tried thousands of Syrian ISIS suspects in flawed proceedings. But neither the Syrian government nor the international community – including the Autonomous Administration’s own international partners – recognize the courts, raising doubts about the enforceability of the rulings.
The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the “Mandela Rules”) require that “[a]ll accommodation provided for the use of prisoners … shall meet all requirements of health, due regard being paid to climatic conditions and particularly to cubic content of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation.” The rules state that “sanitary installations shall be adequate to enable every prisoner to comply with the needs of nature when necessary and in a clean and decent manner” and that “[a]dequate bathing and shower installations shall be provided.”
The Autonomous Administration should stop detaining children solely for suspected ISIS membership. Children who have been associated with armed groups should be treated primarily as victims who need rehabilitation assistance and help reintegrating into society. Children who may have committed other violent offenses should be treated in accordance with international juvenile justice standards and detained only as a last resort. Child suspects should be held separately from adults, unless it is considered in the child's best interest not to do so.
In addition to immediately ensuring that citizens trapped in northeast Syria can return to countries that guarantee due process, countries including members of the International Coalition against ISIS should also press and provide support to detaining authorities to end the inhumane conditions for those who cannot be promptly taken home or be involuntarily resettled without risk of torture or ill-treatment, including citizens of Iraq. The detaining authorities should ensure that anyone it is holding has been detained according to law, including prompt judicial review of each detainee to ensure the legality and necessity of detention, and that no one is held in inhumane or degrading conditions.
Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, anyone detained on suspicion for committing criminal offenses should be taken promptly before a judge or an equivalent authority to order their release. Anyone so detained is entitled to a trial within a reasonable time or release. The UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has said that the right to a judicial review of detention continues at all times, including in emergency situations.
Pending repatriation or third-country resettlement of non-Syrian prisoners to countries where they are not at risk of torture, ill-treatment, or unfair trials, the US-led coalition and countries with nationals held in northeast Syria should provide financial and technical support to the detaining authorities. The funding should be used to ensure that the authorities house all detainees in official prisons that are built to accommodate detainees and meet basic international standards including standards regarding juvenile justice.
“That those detained are ISIS suspects is no excuse for home countries to look the other way,” Tayler said. “If conditions in these prisons don’t improve, then home countries’ fears of radicalization and ISIS resurgence could become a reality.”